In March, Santa Fe photographer William Frej and his wife Anne barely made it out of Mérida, Mexico before the international effects of the COVID-19 pandemic grounded air travel. By his estimation, it might have been the very last flight out of the Yucatan city in that turbulent period.
Following in the footsteps of German/Austrian photographer Teobert Maler (who, btw, wound up in Mexico as part of Maximilian's army in the 1860s, survived the ensuing onslaught and lived out his days obsessively photographing Mayan ruins until he died in 1917), Frej has worked the Yucatan for years. Documenting sites throughout the region has become so commonplace for him, he even has a little place down there, and much of the gold he struck while exploring the area this time out makes its way into his new book of stunning black and white shots, Maya Ruins Revisited: In the Footsteps of Teobert Maler, which will release through Santa Fe's Peyton Wright Gallery alongside an exhibit of large scale prints.
With his trusty camera in hand and new information unearthed by futuristic LiDAR laser scanning technology, Frej came away with countless shots of ruins Maler visited, some he hadn't and a deeper understanding of the size and scope of the Mayan civilizations that once pulsed with unfathomably large populations.
"I had a couple of goals, objectives, for doing this book, and one was really documenting remote Maya sites that no one has seen by and large for the last 100 years," Frej tells SFR. "Because there's a number of questions that still exist among Mayanists and archaeologists about what really happened to the Maya culture; more and more research is being done and pointing to climate change."
Frej says much of his drive came from rediscovering sites found by Maler, photographs of which have rarely been seen by anyone, but some of which he used as inspiration (and appears in the book). There's a little bit of posterity behind the project as well, a little something to leave behind for the artists and scientists of the future, but ultimately, Maya Ruins Revisted has a covert environmental message—there's not much time left to get a lid on climate change, and certainly no civilization is guaranteed forever.
Frej points to the city of Tikal in Guatemala, where he says earlier estimates of roughly 200,000 citizens now seem incorrect thanks to LiDAR discoveries from archaeologists.
"Now they think maybe 1 or 2 million," he says. "They found 65,000 structures they hadn't thought existed."
But, Frej adds, experts believe the civilization's water supply started to run dry 12-to-1,500 years ago, killing crops and people, scattering survivors further out into the region and beyond.
"They now know there was major drought," Frej explains. "It wasn't warring factions."
Today, these remote sites are desolate and require dozens of hours to reach, and according to Frej, it's easy to draw comparisons between the Maya and the possible future of our own civilization.
"I think it's important to raise the question of where we're headed," Frej adds. "One wonders where the world will be in 50 years if changes aren't made without really grasping climate change."
Of course, there's the thrill of discovery, as well. Many Mayan sites have gone untouched by all but caretakers or perhaps nearby farmers and beekeepers. Frej had to get governmental permission to even shoot many of the ruins. Still, he says, it was more than worth the paperwork and travel time; he recalls a long trek through the jungle during which he came across a pair of massive stone serpent heads he estimates were 5 feet tall by 4 feet wide.
"They were obviously place markers to mark the corner of a major plaza in the city," he says excitedly, "but there they were, nearly 1,500 years later and you can still find objects like this. Luckily, they've never been looted."
Because in many cases, these sites are so remote, one would never just stumble across them. Frej's use of crisp black and white only furthers the feel of isolation inherent in the abandoned structures; an intriguing take considering the vibrant colors for which the Yucatan is known.
"The jungle," Frej notes, "is really black and white—the time of the year the leaves are off the trees…it has this really stark feeling. And when these structures were built, they were painted in blues and reds and yellows, but today the limestone is a very white-ish gray color, which works well for black and white."
Considering Frej's regular use of bold colors and people in many other photos—his series of the rituals of the Cora people rests someplace in-between— Mayan Ruin Revisited is a perhaps more academic approach for the photog, but one that easily dredges up emotions in the viewer and remains reverential. As of today, Frej says he still has about 12 Maler sites to visit to complete his long-running pilgrimage. The search, he says with a chuckle, will go on.
"This will stick with me for a long time," he concludes.
William Frej: Maya Ruins Revisited: In the Foosteps of Teobert Maler Opening:
5 pm Friday, Oct. 2. Free.
1 pm Saturday, Oct. 3. Free.
Peyton Wright Gallery,
237 E Palace Ave.,